Museums are constantly looking for ways to provide visitors with hands-on experiences as opposed to just displaying artifacts behind glass. And that's what you'll find at LA's Skirball Cultural Center between now and Sept. 10 with Paul Simon: Words and Music.
It's a traveling exhibition originally curated by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; for the Skirball installation, the Roland Corporation—a manufacturer and distributor of electronic musical instruments—built a custom music lab, and it's deeply cool.
On a recent visit, PCMag ended up jamming (virtually) with Paul Simon himself.
First we toured the exhibition area, which contains over 80 artifacts from his iconic 1967 Guild F-30-NT-Spec guitar, classic album covers, handwritten lyrics on paper scraps, B&W contact sheets and early A&R (Artists & Repertoire) materials, including teenage-era headshots of Simon and Art Garfunkel, back when they were billed, briefly, as Tom & Jerry for their first single in 1957, "Hey, Schoolgirl."
It's all imaginatively laid out: you can be precise, moving clockwise, and see Simon's career unfold chronologically. Or, as several people were doing during our visit, make yourself at home, sprawl on the comfy armchairs in the center and watch vintage television footage, alongside more contemporary interviews with Simon talking about his career to date.
As befitting a music legend, the headphones at each display area are DJ-quality, Italian-designed V-Moda Crossfade; you can see why they retail for $300+ each.
After enjoying the exhibition, we headed next door to the Music Lab. It contains five main music activity labs—Audio Mixing, Electronic Drum Circle, Harmonizer, "Partch" Keyboard, and Rhythm Mix & Match—with 10 different interactive music stations to try out. The gear on display includes: Roland Octapad SPD-30 Digital Percussion Pad, Roland SP-404SX Linear Wave Sampler, Boss VE-8 Acoustic Singer, Roland CM-30 Cube Monitor and, of course, the V-Moda Headphones throughout.
Paul Simon is famous for using mixing consoles, so the music lab is intended to let visitors experience his process themselves.
We created our own unique mix of "Mrs. Robinson" (nothing more enjoyable than affecting a deep frown of concentration when pushing up a fader to bring in more bass) and harmonized with Paul himself via the Acoustic Singer (PSA: everyone not wearing headphones can hear you). Slightly more complex musical jamming was attempted on the Linear Wave Sampler, alternating between rhythmic or harmonic components, selecting drums, percussion and then blending in vocals and other instruments on top.
In an email, Corey Fournier, Market Development Manager for Roland Corporation US, said the exhibit "gives us a chance to bring Roland's 40-plus years of experience to a new generation through the words and music of Paul Simon."
It's a subtle showroom style experience; the hands-on activities feel a bit like getting a private tech-check before deciding what gear to pack into the tour bus.
Having said that, and it might have been because it was 3 p.m. on a Thursday, but we were the only people at the music stations over 7 years old, which was rather disconcerting at first. I imagine the age dynamic is different during the evenings/weekend hours because it's a musical geek's paradise.